Dir. Tom Hooper
(2010, R, 118 min)
★ ★ ★

The King’s Speech is burdened with self-ascribed import. It tells the story of King George VI, who ascended to the British throne in the years leading up to the Second World War. He suffered from a stammer that, at the dawn of the age of radio, crippled him as a leader. But of course by then the British monarch was a figurehead who, as George himself admits at a moment of self-doubt, appoints no government and makes no command decisions. As the symbolic representative of the British people at a time of crisis, his words had meaning, but the film almost gives us the impression that George’s improved speech all but won the war. As he steps out onto his balcony, received by his adoring subjects, the film seems to say, “Problem solved! War’s over! He successfully read a prepared statement!” (The specific words chosen for that statement seem irrelevant to the story; all we’re told before it’s put in the King’s hands is that the speech was approved, by someone or lots of someones who presumably know about such things as proper word selection at a time of war.)

Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue

Its best scenes are its lighter ones, where wit is emphasized over sentiment. The film opens in the late 1920s, when George (Colin Firth) is still twice-removed from the throne, after his domineering father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who seems perpetually disappointed in his children, and his older brother Edward (Guy Pearce), a rudderless playboy who lacks the discipline of a ruler. After a disastrous speech at Wembley Stadium, George’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) makes an appointment for him to see speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who immediately contradicts the opinions of George’s doctors. “They’ve all been knighted,” George protests. “That makes it official then,” says Lionel.

Bon mots like those are the highlight of their scenes together. There is compelling tension between them early in their relationship, a power imbalance that Lionel immediately tries to level, and George — or “Bertie,” as Lionel insists on calling him to force a familial intimacy — resists. Their relationship sometimes develops like a romantic comedy (boy meets speech therapist, boy loses speech therapist, boy gets speech therapist back) and at other times like a sports movie, where George is the underdog athlete and Lionel is the trainer, and after he’s put through his paces the crowd cheers. “Touchdown!” Or, in this case, “Elocution!” I was less interested in their relationship when it fell into those formulas. It becomes too sentimental, too comfortable, and a lot of the bite goes out of the dialogue.

Helena Bonham Carter, as Elizabeth

The director is Tom Hooper, whom I’ve often not been fond of despite admiring, to varying degrees, all of the films of his that I’ve seen. That’s due in no small part to his exemplary work with actors, including Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in John Adams and Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I, both miniseries produced for HBO. Otherwise, there’s often a dryness in his staging, especially in historical epics. They’re safely respectable, austere, lacking in passion. His most satisfying film to date was the more contemporary The Damned United from last year, where he tapped into the reckless bluster of his main character, embattled British football coach Brian Clough.

The King’s Speech isn’t as dry as Hooper’s earlier period pieces. It’s looser and more at ease, and with his camera he creates visually interesting, off-center compositions and tableaus. There are times, though, when he seems overly preoccupied with his own sets, angling shots to highlight every architectural detail. It’s hard to blame him. The production design by Eve Stewart is superb. But sometimes it feels like he’s shooting dioramas instead of scenes.

World War II arrives on cue. Timothy Spall is on hand as Winston Churchill, before he was prime minister, and of all the Churchills I’ve seen portrayed on screen lately, I haven’t seen one quite so comically grumpy-looking. At one point, departing prime minister Stanley Baldwin (Anthony Andrews) says to George VI, “Your greatest test is yet to come,” which given the film’s subject makes the Nazis’ march through Europe seem like mostly a challenge of public speaking. “What’s he saying,” George’s daughter asks about a newsreel of Hitler. “I don’t know,” says George, “but he seems to be saying it rather well.” We’re told by the film that George’s speeches became a source of comfort and resolve throughout the war. I’m sure the Allied forces helped too.